Dan Rather’s investigation of George W. Bush’s National Guard service gets exonerated, but only after thudding speeches about journalism
There’s a great movie coming out about the relevance of hard journalism in the Internet age: It’s called “Spotlight,” and you should definitely check it out when it opens in November.
Less successful at tackling a similar subject is “Truth,” a film that’s about the importance of asking questions and speaking truth to power — and we know this because every other scene has a character launching into a monologue about the importance of asking questions and speaking truth to power.
In his directorial debut, screenwriter James Vanderbilt (“The Amazing Spider-Man,” “White House Down”) can barely find time to show with all the tell, tell, tell he’s included in the screenplay, based on the memoir by former “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes.
Those inclined to create drinking games out of popular movies might take note of how many times the characters utter some version of “We have to be able to ask the question” over the course of two-plus hours.
Mapes (played by Cate Blanchett) begins the movie in conversation with a lawyer, and her series of flashbacks let us know why she needs legal representation: After Mapes broke the Abu Ghraib story, producers at CBS News are eager to work with her again, particularly if she can come up with a hot story for the new fall 2004 season.
She soon finds one — the possibility that incumbent George W. Bush, whose backers are smearing the war record of opponent John Kerry, pulled strings not just to get into the Texas Air National Guard (while Kerry and others were being drafted to Vietnam) but also went AWOL during his period of service.
The story intrigues the CBS brass enough that they give Mapes the go-ahead to pursue her leads. She assembles a team of researchers, including former Pentagon insider Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), muckraker Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and journalism professor Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss, barely utilized), all in the hopes of putting together a story that veteran newsman Dan Rather (Robert Redford) can put onto “60 Minutes.”
Even though the investigation relies on the testimony of people remembering events of 30 years earlier, as well as unverifiable documents that have been photocopied numerous times, Mapes and her team forge ahead, confident that they’ve got the story together. But then it airs, and everything hits the fan, with sources suddenly recanting their stories and Internet know-it-alls micro-analyzing every piece of evidence.
As the situation unravels, and heads start rolling at the network, the brusque Mapes must prepare to face down an independent board of inquiry that seems poised to make her the scapegoat for the whole fiasco. But if nothing else, it provides the movie with yet another opportunity to make yet another speech.
In exploring the minutiae of a news story this complicated, “Truth” does due diligence in making the mass of names and dates and sources easy for audiences to follow. That same clarity doesn’t quite apply to film’s secondary figures — rather than cast easily distinguishable faces for characters we’re only going to see in a handful of scenes, Vanderbilt all but dares us to tell the difference between Rachael Blake as CBS exec Betsy West and Natalie Saleeba as “60 Minutes II” producer Mary Murphy.
Blanchett, as you’d imagine, is riveting, even when she’s saddled with the movie’s on-the-nose dialogue, not to mention a handful of fairly contrived domestic scenes and some borderline-offensive dimestore psychologizing about how Mapes’ abusive childhood led her to pursue a career in journalism.
Then there’s Redford, who has opted to change his voice only a little (slightly suggesting Rather’s Texas twang) and his blond hair not at all, and it’s distracting – we’re watching one celebrity pretending to be another one, but Robert Redford looks so much like Robert Redford that it’s hard to make the leap and think of him as Dan Rather.
A documentary on this fascinating turn of events would have made for engaging viewing and offered those involved a chance to file an appeal in the court of public opinion; this fictionalized version, apart from featuring more chest-beating than your average Tarzan movie, doesn’t do these journalists much of a favor.